Amin Maalouf’s soul carries many wounds. He is Lebanese. The son of an unstable country, which was the product of a marriage between small nations and conflicting views.
He was born on the shores of the Mediterranean to a diverse and cultured family. From his father, Rushdy, he inherited the curse of journalism. It is a curse to those who practice it because they are obsessed with reaching the truth of things. The obsession with the future prompted Maalouf to dig into the past. It is a journey fraught with dangers.
Maalouf is the son of the Arab world, which for centuries was ruled by the Ottomans and later came under western hegemony. The Arab world realized years ago that it is ill and lagging behind others. It chose the wrong treatments and ended up without a state and institutions.
Maalouf is the son of this frightened and frightening East that tends to its wounds with sorcery, myths and the sharpening of spears.
The great author is a great journalist. His mission is to seize the signals from society and people and later examine and analyze them. Like the journalist, the author is a cunning spy who solves mysteries and turns them into tales. The author is a spy who sends his report to the dictator - the readers, who are the final trial and judge.
A storyteller needs the journalist's ability to dive deep into the heart of matters, lift the veil, and extract the truth from people and groups. The journalist needs some of the storyteller’s skill in luring the reader and keeping them captivated until they reach the end of the story. Journalism gifts the storyteller the talent of observing individuals and the world and seizing on points of weakness without embellishment.
Journalism comes to the aid of the storyteller because it puts them in touch with the changes that impact individuals and groups. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a professional journalist before he took the dive into storytelling. You could say he remained a journalist until his final days. This journalistic view of society, politics and literature allowed him to enrich the world with his works, such as “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and “The Autumn of the Patriarch”. He would be awarded the Nobel Prize for capturing pain, oppression and injustice through his words.
Authors protect cities from being forgotten. They try their best to peer behind the curtains. Their words stir spirits and the soul. They stand before the history of their countries and try to expose calamities that have been covered up.
Whenever I visit Istanbul, I know that I am visiting the city of Orhan Pamuk even though its history is rife with other names and headlines. Pamuk studied architecture and journalism, before catching the writing bug. Undeterred by threats, he tapped into the wounds of the Turkish, Kurdish and Armenian people. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for his efforts in 2006.
Mario Vargas Llosa is another magician. A native of Peru, this journalist – along with Marquez - witnessed the horrors and pain of Latin America. He was seduced by Paris, its storytellers and language and settled there. The storyteller, journalist and politician in him produced such works as “The War of the End of the World” and “The Feast of the Goat”. He was granted the Nobel Prize in 2010. The award did not lure him to retirement, but he continues to be prolific, seeking the secret of things. I was delighted to interview him to Asharq Al-Awsat and he delivered his articles to the readers. Llosa has been immortalized by the French Academy, which Maalouf has been named as its new “perpetual leader”.
I won’t take the risk of passing judgment on complicated issues that require expert opinions. All that I have written are the impressions of a political journalist, who occasionally runs away from the usual subjects of hardships, corruption and failure to kill time with a novel that could enrich his soul or humanity.
I want to say that Maalouf, who is distant geographically from Marquez and Llosa and closer to Pamuk’s Istanbul, is skilled at deriving lessons from a thorny history in his search of a different future.
Maalouf was born on the converging point between civilizations and cultures. In his youth, he was overwhelmed by the bloody war, which was tearing his country apart. He realized that the legacy of hatred gushes from several streams. Old wars are never satiated by their fallen victims, but they are in constant search of new generations to torment.
He became a journalist to document the memories of lost cities that are caught between eastern and western trenches and the traps that are relations between religions, cultures and civilizations. He came away with a handful of stories.
Upon being elected as head of the French Academy, Maalouf declared that there is a “wall” between the cultures that he belonged to and that he aspires to tear it down. “This has always been my purpose in life and in my writing,” he added.
Since his early days at An Nahar newspaper, Maalouf drew attention to his ability to sniff the past in current tragedies. He turned to the past to understand the conflicts of the present. He went about searching for reconciliation that would be based on respecting differences of others and turning contradictions into opportunities to enrich cultures and societies, not spark conflict. He chose to leave his nation and settled in France without forgetting his roots. The journalist in him enriched the author, who gifted the world with such works as “Leo Africanus”, “Samarkand”, “The Rock of Tanios”, and “The Crusades Through Arab Eyes”.
Maalouf scratches at the wounds of history. In all likelihood he is saddened by the Russian war in Ukraine, the clash of identities, panic of empires and the rising numbers of migrants embarking on treacherous journeys in the “boats of death” in search of a better life. Amin Maalouf is a traveler with many wounds.